Raising Expectations for Ouya
Few projects have seized the Kickstarter zeitgeist as effectively as Ouya - but it's destined to disappoint
This time last week, nobody had heard of Ouya; we might have guessed that it was an approximation of the sound of a polite grandmother dropping a hammer on her toe, or the carnal grunt of an Old Etonian. Seven days later, it's soared past its funding target on Kickstarter and has become one of the hottest topics in the industry. Yet it's been fascinating to speak to a variety of different people about the proposed console and gauge the reasons for their support, because doing so has revealed vast fractures in terms of what people actually expect from this console.
For most - especially those at the lower end of the pledging scale, I expect - their support is a reflection of pent-up demand for a smart TV device. An all-digital console with the same development philosophy as mobile and tablet games is seen as filling the gap which has been created, conspicuously, by years of talking about a Google, Apple or even Valve led Smart TV revolution which has thus far failed to materialise. Ouya hitches a lift on a variety of related trends in a pretty overt way - the rise of indie (and of the superstar indie developer - witness the quotes from the likes of Mojang and Jenova Chen on the Kickstarter page), the rise of crowdfunding, the sense of inevitability about mobile and tablet gaming making an impact on the TV screen.
"Ouya hitches a lift on a variety of related trends - the rise of indie, the rise of crowdfunding, the sense of inevitability about mobile and tablets making an impact on the TV screen"
Then there's the controller - a conventional joypad. No touch screen, no movement controls. Among the traditional gamers who have voiced hatred of such things for years, not a dry eye in the house. Could it be? Could this be the device that's going to reclaim these brave new worlds of gaming - F2P, mobile, tablet, digital - from the hordes of arm-waving, song-singing, touchscreen-molesting not-proper-gamers who have infested them? Shut up and take my money!
If you're detecting a hint of cynicism here - well, I think that's natural. Here we have a device which clambers atop a rickety tower of trends and waves its arms for attention. Think about it - it's an open platform, for indie developers, crowdfunded, all-digital, "disruptive" (maybe), hacker-friendly, free-to-play... It's painfully hip, like a console built after a brainstorming session consisting exclusively of words cut out from the headlines of Boing Boing posts. This console wears heavy non-prescription glasses and patterned cardigans, has a dreadful beard, drinks chai lattes outside pop-up cafes in Shoreditch and listens to the latest unreleased music demos on an old tape walkman "ironically". It couldn't have been more guaranteed the Kickstarter success it has ultimately achieved.
I don't begrudge it that. It has played to a crowd beautifully - perhaps even unconsciously - and indeed, it's a thing of beauty in many ways. Like the trends which have birthed it, the Ouya is a lovely idea. Cheap, open, hackable, filled with content from talented indie developers. It's a beautiful idea and in fact, it has the potential to become a beautiful little community - a creative incubator filled with new ideas being tested and trialled, welcoming fledgling developers to dip in and show what they can do, while giving more established developers a platform on which to trial new ideas. (Of course, PC advocates might point out that Windows and indeed OSX have been doing exactly that for years, but while there's substance to that argument, the point remains that console gaming and hence console development is intrinsically more attractive for some players, so there is theoretically room for an "open console" of sorts.)
The real problem is one of expectation. Ouya's creators asked for $950,000 and at the time that I'm writing this, they're hovering around the $4 million mark. Exceeding their target by such a margin has created immense excitement around the platform, and that's led to a lot of the fractures in terms of expectation that I alluded to earlier. Some people (outspoken Android advocates, mostly, which can't be an easy position to take and thus deserves our sympathy) view this as a final piece of the puzzle for Android, completing a platform comprising mobile, tablet and now console offerings and thus ushering in an era of dominance for their chosen OS. Others, more sanely but equally questionably, view it as a full-scale introduction of F2P mechanisms to the console space which will prove disruptive to the console business at large.
"What we've seen so far is a sliver of a fraction of a niche, not a workable market and not an indication of guaranteed success"
Those two are marginal viewpoints, certainly - but they can be found easily enough within many discussions around Ouya this week. Much more common is the viewpoint that this has just become a major battleground between "open" and "closed". Consoles are, unquestionably, "closed" - it's insanely expensive to develop a title for the Xbox 360 or the PS3 and you need permission from a platform holder, probably via an equally restrictive publisher, to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, Ouya is open; buy one, build something, release it. (In the middle, you get all manner of things being labelled "open" or "closed" based on rhetorical convenience rather than any truly useful definition - witness iOS and WP7 being labelled "closed" despite occupying a space at the "open" end of the spectrum so close to Android's own policies that most consumers couldn't make a meaningful distinction between them.)
So poor Ouya, now, is going to be a stalking horse for the hopes and dreams of the "open" crowd. This beautiful, well-intentioned, achingly hip piece of technology is going to go out into the world with the expectation of actually winning over a meaningful audience of consumers who will knowingly choose an "open" platform over the "closed" ones currently on offer - who will buy into the Ouya vision of a future where entertainment exists without gatekeepers or curators.
Let's put this in a little bit of perspective. First, hard numbers. Ouya, as I write, has raised $4 million from around 31,000 people. That's a big number of consumers to some people. If I wrote a book on Kindle and sold it to 31,000 people for a fiver each, I'd be very happy. For a console with an F2P business model, though, it's barely even a test market, let alone a viable consumer base. Remember that even the most successful console games rarely sell to 10% of the console installed base (misfits like Wii Fit aside) - even if we assume that F2P ensures a wider group will sample the game, remember that only around 1 in 20 people who play F2P games actually pay (the figures fluctuate and are tough to pin down, but that's not a bad ballpark). Now, Ouya will hopefully sell to a lot more than the 31,000 people who backed it, but the point remains - what we've seen so far is a sliver of a fraction of a niche, not a workable market and not an indication of guaranteed success.
Secondly, a brief exploration of why consumers buy consoles. One word - games. Consumers buy consoles because those consoles have games they want to play. A handful buy consoles due to platform loyalty, and go on to make a lot of noise about them on the internet, but they're not an important market overall (even Nintendo's consoles sell, ultimately, because of Nintendo's games, not because of the Nintendo name itself). I doubt that any human being in history has ever walked into a games store and bought a console because they like the market philosophy behind it ("an Xbox 360 and a copy of Atlas Shrugged if you would please, shopkeep!"), although if someone has, I'm sure they'll pop up in the comments below to prove both my wrongness and their own loneliness in the world. On mobile, a handful of noisy Internet types choose Android specifically because of the open/closed debate, but again, they're not a particularly important market segment - one of Android's greatest problems is that most people who choose Android phones do so simply because they're cheap, and go on to spend no money whatsoever in the Google Play store.
"Those creating huge expectations for the console are going to be disappointed; the internet opinion machine will take that disappointment and turn it into failure"
This is the reality facing Ouya. You convince consumers to buy a console by having top-flight software available for it. You convince developers to create top-flight software by either paying them (first party), or by convincing them that there are going to be tons of consumers around to buy their software at launch. The way you achieve the latter is by injecting enormous amounts of money into both first party software and launch marketing. Ouya, which is launching a console on a budget less than that of most console software releases, let alone hardware launches, cannot afford to do that - and all the Boing Boing posts and Kickstarter magic dust in the world doesn't change that.
To me, the saddest thing about this situation is that Ouya is brilliant. It's a great idea, and I think it's going to do something really interesting in terms of creating a community that's very small, very rough and tumble but utterly buzzing with creativity. I've backed it (not least because in a week when people seem to have decided that throwing money at an existing, profitable publication through Kickstarter is a reasonable use of the site, giving some money to an actually innovative, creative project seemed like the best riposte) and I'll buy one, and I'm intrigued to see what comes of it. But it's sad, because Ouya is going to be judged a failure. Those creating huge expectations for the console are going to be disappointed; the internet opinion machine will take that disappointment and turn it into failure. Ouya will do some great stuff, but it's not going to disrupt the console business (which is already pretty disrupted already) or initiate a revolution against closed platforms. I fear that the hype will make it impossible to enjoy the platform for what it is - an idea that's simply too lovely to survive in the real world.